Is ML-1 a 'luxury' or an essential requirement?

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been a pivotal component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), connecting the Ports in Pakistan to China's north western region. Among the numerous projects that make up CPEC, the Main Line 1 (ML-1) railway project stands out as a transformative endeavour with the potential to reshape Pakistan's economic and infrastructural landscape. In this article, an attempt has been made to spell out as to what ML-1 CPEC Project is and why it is not only beneficial but essential for Pakistan's growth and development.

Pakistan Railway (PR) has classified its Infrastructure under following three categories.

1.     ML-1       Keamari Karachi to Peshawar via Lahore and Rawalpindi

2.     ML-2       Kotri to Attock city via Larkana, Jacobabad, DG Khan and Kundian.

3.     ML-3       Rohri to Chaman (via Quetta), Spezand to Taftan and other branch lines and future lines.

ML-1 is about 1726 Kilometres long and around 80% of the industrial centres and the population are located along this corridor. Furthermore , this is the line which connects the two major sea ports, i.e. Karachi port and Port Qasim, with rest of the country. This corridor has very justifiably been termed as the life-line of the country and hence the importance of ML-1 can never be overemphasised. 

The Public Sector investment in  Rail Sector of Pakistan started declining during seventies due to major policy shift favouring Road Sector. As a consequence , the Rail Infrastructure started running its downward course because of gradually decreasing investment by the government. This adversely affected the overall performance of Pakistan Railway. The 70% market share of PR in freight sector during sixties, dwindled to almost 2% to 3% at present. 

The current condition of track on ML-1 is quite worrisome . The overage percentage of rails varies from 45% to 90% in nearly 2300 Kilometres length of track and percentage of overage sleepers ranges from 30% to 95% in about 500 Kilometres.Most of the bridges are more than 100 Years old and have outlived their life. At majority of railway stations, signalling system is obsolete. All this is coupled with low quality of maintenance and the required resources for ‘up to mark’ maintenance are not available.The maintenance systems are manual and obsolete. The current fleet of track maintenance machinery is far below the actual requirement for complete mechanised maintenance. The quality of manual maintenance, currently in vogue, is far from satisfactory. The sequel is continual degradation of track.This was amply exhibited when a major bridge in Karachi Division (Ranpethani) collapsed and the rail traffic remained suspended for quite a number of days. 

Under the above circumstances, ML-1 was conceived in the year 2014. After a Feasibility Study, the cost of the project was estimated US$ 9.2 billion. Preliminary Design was prepared and was got reviewed by the third party. However, a modified PC-1, at the cost of $US 9.8 billion, was approved for the up gradation having the following features :

1.     Raise the axle load to 25 Tons as is the norm in the World Railways now. Pakistan Railway is currently operating at 22.86 Tons

2.     To raise the speed for passenger trains to 160 KMH

3.     To eliminate Level Crossings which are a serious safety hazard even at current speed of 120 KMH. Accidents on Level Crossings and consequent loss of human life is alarming. 

4.     Most of the bridges are more than 100 years old and outlived their expected life. These are now degrading continuously due to lack of effective maintenance.

5.     Install modern signalling system to replace the age-old obsolete systems

6.     To dualize the track from Lahore to Peshawar.

7.     Transfer of Technology for mechanised maintenance and construction of track.

The execution of the project would have resulted in enhancement of line capacity  to more than 134 trains per day against existing line capacity of 34 trains per day . Higher axle load and lengthier trains would have enhanced the per train pay load carrying capacity resulting in  better productivity. Safety parameters would have tremendously increased due to more robust track infrastructure, absence of level crossings and modern signalling.

The project was conceived in the year 2014 but implementation on ground could not be started . The cost of the project made the decision-makers vacillate and procrastinate which took heavy toll in the shape of further deterioration of infrastructure making it riskier for safe train operations. The cost factor made PR management rationalise scope and cost by leaving a certain works to future. The current rationalized cost is $US 6.7 billion. However, no major compromise has been made as to original features with the exception that over some sections operating speed is120 km/hr with speed of 140 km where geometric conditions permit. However, From Karachi to Hyderabad operational speed will be 160 km /hr. Nonetheless, the designed speed will be 160 km/hr right from Karachi upto Lalamusa. This will enhance line capacity from 34 trains per day to 100 trains a day. This will enable PR to move around 30 millions tonnes of cargo per year over this trade corridor which, at present, is almost 8.5 million tonnes out of total of 95 million tonnes available for transportation. 

The traffic forecasts have been endorsed by independent studies conducted by Asian Development Bank (ADB) and JICA. This has also been authenticated by joint studies conducted by Chinese and PR teams. Back in 2019, The World Bank not only endorsed traffic forecasts but also declared the Project as technically sound and essentially required for Pakistan. The Project is to be to financed through a soft loan from China.However, delay after delay is causing irreparable loss not only to PR but to national economy as well. One reason of this unfortunate delay is perhaps adverse opinions held and expressed  by eminent economists like our ex-Finance Minister Mr. Miftah Ismail in Dawn of November 05, 2023. He concluded his article with the following words

“Therefore, we should defer ML-1 project for few years. Right now, it would be like buying a corporate jet for the CEO of a deeply indebted loss-making company. The jet may be convenient for corporate managers but it’s not a luxury the company can afford. Similarly, we can’t afford the new railway line.”

We believe and are sure that he offered his opinion in all sincerity and with his best professional acumen, but, unfortunately, was not equipped with correct information as to current status of Railway Infrastructure and also suffered from scanty knowledge regarding Railway and its working . We have mentioned very brief remarks about the condition of Railway Infrastructure in the above paras. But, this is not all. Every day increasing number of accidents and slowing down of trains due to poor condition of infrastructure depicts the sad reality. Many railway sections had to be closed due to poor infrastructure. Slowing down of trains due to poor and precarious infrastructure not only compromises safety and quality of service but also reduced line capacity resulting in reduction in number of trains that can be run which, in turn, entail increased loss. Railway, as a mode of transport, is a high fixed cost operation. Normally, around 80% cost of railway operations is fixed. It is a simple principle of economics that capacity utilisation of a high fixed cost industry is the key to profitability. Running 30 to 34 trains a day (which is current line capacity) Pakistan Railway is sustaining huge losses and is a permanent drain on government exchequer.The primary objective of ML-1 was to enhance the line capacity which is the only possibility for Pakistan Railway to become profitable. The reason and basis of recommending deferment of ML-1 is based on the pretext that substantial interest will have to be paid against the Chinese loan ignoring the fact that the government is already doling out a lot of money to keep it afloat. Accepting recommendations of honourable Miftah Ismail would mean we are not ready to pay the interest on loan, but, we are willing to sustain huge financial losses annually in addition to loss of human lives in accidents and depriving people of Pakistan from a comfortable, safe and economical mode of transport.

We have been deferring proper maintenance and upkeep of railway infrastructure since last more than 50 years. Further deferment means nothing, but, further deterioration which may be fatal and finally lead to demise of Pakistan Railway. No sane government can afford  huge financial losses, year On year,  with no hope of survival . 

At this point in time, we have to seriously  think whether we really need a railway system in Pakistan. If answer is no, we must call it a day and close rail operations forthwith  to avoid further recurring financial  losses.However, before we do that let us have an impartial look at the following ground realities :

Pakistan’s import bill of fuel is a massive burden on Foreign Exchange Reserves. An efficient and productive railway system can be a saviour. Every single human life is very precious and railway is the safest mode of transport. Environment is a serious issue for us now and should we not have environment friendly systems.

We also need to look around to see what is happening in the world in this respect. It is a known fact that developed countries are continuously increasing the role of railways for heavy hauls. World is adopting high speed train operations for passenger movements. The same is true in our neighbourhood. China has tremendously enhanced its size of railway system and is increasing high speed operations day by day . India has adopted railway as a primary mode of transport. She is continuously electrifying and adding new lines including very expensive railway track to Kashmir, the  most difficult terrain for a railway system. Even Afghanistan, which was a country with no railway, is putting in place its rail system. This indicates resurgence of rail system and its importance through out the world being primary and efficient mode of transport. 

As to foreign borrowing and payment of interest thereon, the terms and conditions of loan from China are yet to be negotiated. However, a certain things are for sure. Firstly, this is Infrastructure Project hence there will be no ‘Insurance Cost' as given to understand by the honourable ex-Minister for Finance . This cost is relevant to Energy Sector Project. Secondly , We have been getting very favourable terms and conditions of Chinese loans  for construction of Highways under CPEC. Since the government of China declared ML-1 as one of the Strategic Projects, therefore, we have every reason to believe that we would be getting much favourable terms and conditions of loan viz-a-viz that of road sector projects under CPEC .

The suggestion of honourable ex-Minister that a modern signalling system, at a cost of US$ 150 million, can be an alternative— is quite mind boggling for a person who is aware of Railway working . It is not understandable, how a modern signalling system will help enhance line capacity and safety when the track and bridges under the train are in poor and deplorable condition, cannot afford the specific loads and speed of trains and are not very safe. How the  signalling system, standalone, will do the wonders is beyond comprehension .

Given the above backdrop , a  summary  obtains as under :

Infrastructure Modernization: The ML-1 project aims at modernizing Pakistan's outdated and rundown railway infrastructure, including tracks, signalling systems, Maintenance techniques and stations. This modernization is crucial for improving efficiency, safety, and capacity of the railway network.

Economic Development: The upgraded railway infrastructure will enhance connectivity within Pakistan and with neighbouring countries, fostering economic development and trade. Improved transportation can facilitate the movement of goods and people, boosting economic activities and creating job opportunities.

Trade Facilitation: ML-1 is expected to reduce transportation costs substantially and transit times for goods, making Pakistani products more competitive in international markets. Efficient rail transport can enhance trade connectivity between Pakistani Ports and the northern regions of Pakistan, as well as with China and Central Asian countries.
Energy Efficiency: Upgraded rail infrastructure can lead to energy efficiency by reducing the need for road transport, which is definitely less energy-efficient. Rail transport is generally considered more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient than road transport, contributing to sustainability goals. It will help  minimise burden on our foreign exchange reserves by reducing fuel import bill.

Strategic Connectivity: ML-1 can enhance strategic connectivity between various regions of Pakistan, making movement of troops and essential supplies more efficient, especially in remote or conflict-prone areas. This strategic advantage can bolster national security and defence capabilities.

Foreign Direct Investment: Improved infrastructure, including railways, can attract foreign direct investment by providing a reliable and efficient means of transportation for businesses. A well-connected railway network can make Pakistan a more attractive destination for investors, stimulating economic growth.

Regional Integration: ML-1's connectivity to neighbouring countries, especially China, India, Afghanistan and CAS can promote regional integration and cooperation. Enhanced trade links can foster economic ties and diplomatic relationships, potentially leading to stability and mutual benefits for the countries involved.

Tourism Promotion: A modern and efficient railway network can promote tourism by providing comfortable and convenient travel options for both domestic and international tourists. This can boost the tourism industry, creating revenue and employment opportunities.

Public Transportation: Upgraded railways can improve public transportation services, offering an affordable and efficient mode of travel for the general population. This can ease congestion on roads, reduce pollution, and enhance overall urban mobility.

Safety: Above all, it will provide a safe and comfortable travelling service to the people of Pakistan as well as more reliable and efficient logistics for freight sector.

In a nutshell, The ML-1 Project is imperative for Pakistan's path to progress and prosperity. It offers substantial benefits, ranging from enhanced trade and connectivity to job creation and environmental sustainability. By integrating Pakistan into the global and regional economies, ML-1 is not just a railway project, but, a  'game changer' that can help Pakistan realize its full economic potential enabling it to catch up with changing times . We may have differing opinions, however , the fact remains that the ML-1 Project is not only essentially required for Railway but also for Pakistan and that its further delay will be a great misfortune. 

                                               CO-AUTHORED BY


                                              ZAFAR ZAMAN RANJHA, EX-SECRETARY RAILWAY 

                                              SAEED AKHTAR, EX-CEO RAILWAY 




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